Why Alex Darby’s latest project is proof that student film cannot be ignored

‘Festivals like to see a project rather than a product’, explains Owen Donovan, distribution manager for Waterbird | Catkins, as he steps off camera after filming a quick rave scene, and sits down with me at a table in The Cellar. Owen never expected to be in the final film, he had originally been overseeing the marketing and distribution of the two films, yet had been roped in to fill out the numbers for that particular shot.

I’d been invited down to the usually sweaty and packed club venue at 3 in the afternoon to watch some of the filming for two new student film projects, (the first, Catkins, and the second, Waterbird) both of them written and directed by Alexander Darby. If you are unfamiliar with Alex’s projects, go onto his Vimeo (available at vimeo.com/alexanderdarby) where you can see some of his fantastic work including a preview for The Wishing Horse, a film showing at a number of film festivals at the moment.

Darby decided to shoot both films together to, in effect, allow the project to work in two parts that complimented and augmented one another. Both have remarkably different story lines and themes – Catkins was largely set in an expansive, luscious countryside setting, whereas Waterbird, a film concentrating on the tensions of early adulthood, often has a lot more claustrophobic settings – as seen at The Cellar and later, when the team planned to do a night shoot in the Westgate Car Park. The two contrasting themes in the single project should provide an impressive result for viewers.

What was most striking about the project was how meticulously planned and flawlessly organised it was – even the rave scene, as Owen explains, was carefully orchestrated with specific entrances and exits done at regulated intervals. The day before, I was told, the crew had been out on the river with a boat specifically designed to hold the bulky camera; no expense was spared when it came to the visual quality of the eventual product.

Watching the few takes that I saw, it became clear that a strong working dynamic had emerged between the cast and crew – whenever a take didn’t feel right in Alex’s eyes or a boom mic may have poked into the shot, it was simply re-done without hesitation from anyone. It was this professionalism that clearly created the highest quality in student production.

Having come from a predominantly theatre-based dimension, watching this felt like a surreal experience to me, and it was clear that having a strong creative drive from Alex himself was keeping everyone focussed and patient.

I was lucky enough to be shown some of the footage from the day before (a relatively simple test shot of a jogger in the rain) and the results were incredible when slowed down – droplets of rain were almost visible across what may otherwise have been a dreary riverbank. It was small samples like that that ultimately make the end product all the more exciting.

Though the shoot is now finished, the work for Alex is far from over. Now he has to move to the editing stage (this would last through August apparently) and then the distribution and promotion of the project could begin, as had happened with Alex’s previous films including The Wishing Horse. Even with Catkins and Waterbird fully shot, there is no rest for the director and the rest of his crew, with Alex having recently been involved with the making of the trailer for The Pillowman (on at the Oxford Playhouse next term) and the directing of the video for the comedy song written by David Meredith and Will Hislop of the Oxford Revue (available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnSKzd8K8ug).